Your Guide to Holiday Buying and Selling for Safety on Amazon

Three years ago, Cascadia Seller Solutions investigated a small subsection of Amazon Marketplace products that had obvious flaws on their page that led me to believe there were problems with their compliance – but yet showed up on the first page of search results for highly competitive keywords.

In other words, I was confident these items weren’t safe, but they were top recommended search results that Amazon showed to customers.

We then wrote a press release about the investigation, and started to reach out to reporters. The story finally caught on, and in June of 2019, I sat down with the Wall Street Journal to tell them about our investigation, and how it was informed by my experience in compliance operations at Amazon.

Since then, I have been honored to speak with CNBC, the Today Show, PBS, the BBC, Channel 4, Canadian Public Television, and more – because the safety of the products we buy should be a given, not a question.

As a society, we have agreed that preventable deaths or injuries should be limited to every reasonable extent. As such, it is reasonable to expect Amazon to police its marketplace, and ensure that bad actors are removed.

That being said, some of the clients we’ve helped over the years were simply ignorant or hasty in buying unsafe products to sell on Amazon, and deserved a second chance. Amazon’s current enforcement process is opaque and often unfair, adjudicated by low level hourly employees who know little to nothing about running a small business.

Making mistakes is part of life, and part of running a successful business. We hope that learning from the mistakes of others will be helpful to our readers, and that everyone has a safe and productive holiday selling season!

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Be a Smart Shopper on Amazon.com this Christmas and Keep Your Child Safe

SEATTLE, WA November 16, 2017

Cascadia Seller Solutions, a Seattle-based online consulting firm made up of former Amazon employees, has exposed major safety and compliance issues with some of the products an average shopper might purchase on Amazon.

All Cascadia consultants worked at Amazon, most in a compliance capacity, and the lack of regulation on Amazon’s 3rd party sales platform has always been an area of concern for those in the know. 

Amazon’s position has always been that it provides a marketplace, and that the sellers on the marketplace are obliged to meet applicable regulations and safety standards.  In reality, if Amazon isn’t enforcing rules; sellers aren’t following them, in many cases. And, many people don’t realize when purchasing a 3rd party offering that they are not purchasing directly from Amazon… so when a product fails, or hurts them somehow, they don’t automatically think “seller”. They think “Amazon”.

In September 2017, Cascadia Seller Solutions purchased 9 products sold by 3rd party merchants on Amazon, and sent them to an independent laboratory for basic regulatory testing. Every product failed, for one reason or another (primarily missing labeling or warnings required by law), with three of the items failing egregiously: a citrus squeezer that failed for containing above the legal limit of lead; a children’s toy bag that failed for containing above the legal limit of phthalates; and a puzzle marketed to toddlers where the letter “I” was a choking hazard. 

This is a 33% failure rate, on the first attempt to validate that there is a major product safety issue with Amazon sellers, for issues that cause lasting and permanent damage or death.

The citrus squeezer full of lead is troubling. From the World Health Organization:

  • Lead is a cumulative toxicant that affects multiple body systems and is particularly harmful to young children.
  • Lead in the body is distributed to the brain, liver, kidney and bones. It is stored in the teeth and bones, where it accumulates over time. Human exposure is usually assessed through the measurement of lead in blood.
  • Lead in bone is released into blood during pregnancy and becomes a source of exposure to the developing fetus.
  • There is no known level of lead exposure that is considered safe.

Regarding phthalates found in a children’s product, Healthcare Without Harm has this to say: 

“Phthalates, a family of industrial chemicals used to soften PVC plastic and as solvents in cosmetics and other consumer products, can damage the liver, kidneys, lungs, and reproductive system — particularly the developing testes — according to animal studies.”

Because of its hands-off stance, Amazon puts the onus on sellers to ensure the compliance of their own products, and to report their fellow sellers for violations. But as demonstrated by Cascadia’s recent experiment, sellers are not ensuring the compliance of their products, and placing them for sale anyway.

Further, as noted by Commissioner Robert Adler, long a passionate advocate for product safety at the Consumer Product Safety Commission, these hazards are often invisible and would be difficult to report:

“In 2007 and 2008, the Commission undertook hundreds of recalls involving millions of dangerous toys and other children’s products that failed to comply with CPSC safety rules. These seemingly endless recalls convinced Congress that the CPSC’s traditional system of taking action against dangerous products after they had entered consumers’ homes had to change. 

Congress’ concern stemmed from the fact that children, our most vulnerable consumers, have no ability to take precautions or otherwise protect themselves against hazardous products. This is especially so with respect to certain “hidden” hazards such as lead or loose magnets where the risks are not necessarily obvious even to conscientious parents.”

https://unsplash.com/@kev1n, Kevin Dowling

Advice for Consumers this Holiday Buying Season

As a customer this Christmas buying season, it’s important to protect yourself. Amazon won’t do it for you. Be vigilant about what you’re purchasing and from whom. If necessary, a seller should be able to provide a certificate (Certificates of Analysis are typical for FDA regulated items, Children’s Product Certificates or General Certificates of Conformity are typical for CPSC regulated items). If you ask, and they can’t provide this, find another seller. 

We have a few rules we follow when guiding our friends or family on who to buy from: 

  • Never buy from a seller who uses the logo of a regulatory agency in their listing. This is unauthorized use of the intellectual property of the federal government.
  • If the listing says FDA approved or CPSC approved, then don’t buy it – these agencies don’t approve general consumer goods.
  • If you can’t find a website for the brand, it’s likely a “private label brand” from a small seller from anywhere in the world looking to make a quick buck, not protect you and your family.
  • If the price is MUCH lower than the competition, particularly under $10 for a children’s product, that is suspect. Materials and construction generally cost more than that for compliant materials
  • Beware of generic claims of safety, CE marks, or “BPA-free” products – look for specific phrases, like compliance to a standard, such as ASTM F963-16. ASTM standards are a letter, then a number, and you can use a search engine it to see if it’s relevant to the product

To be sure, it is disheartening that this is the way things are right now. But Amazon is beginning to make great strides toward cracking down on non-compliant sellers. It’s only a matter of time until the 3rd party platform is cleaned up and the offending sellers (and products) removed, hopefully for good. For example, this reddit thread shows sellers discussing CPCs (Children’s Product Certificates) and that Amazon is now requiring them to sell certain children’s products. 

In many respects, 3rd party sales platforms are very much the Wild West of e-commerce. So be sure you’re buying from a trusted source, taking your safety seriously, and doing your own due diligence in lieu of it being done for you. Assuming that due diligence has not been done on your behalf, by anyone, could save you a lot of upset and heartache down the road.

If you’d like to learn more about Cascadia’s recent findings, check out the blog post that started the conversation or reach out to info@thinkcascadia.com.

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About Cascadia Seller Solutions

Cascadia Seller Solutions is a consulting firm for brands on Amazon based in Washington State. Founded by a former Amazonian, and with staff experience of 50+ years collectively at Amazon, Cascadia is focused on making the third party marketplace a successful place for their brands to sell. Whether you’re an established brand looking for an experienced guide, or about to embark on a new business venture, Cascadia offers the depth of experience on Amazon and online brand development and marketing to support your goals.

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About the Author
Rachel Johnson Greer is a global business strategist who specializes in helping entrepreneurs increase their internet product sales, curate their brand image online and avoid catastrophic legal threats. After getting her MBA in international business at Seattle University, she spent nearly a decade at Amazon working in product development. Since then, Rachel has founded companies that reached both multi-six figure and multi-seven figure growth in under three years.

As a business coach, she supports clients in everything from international product expansion to 4x-ing their sales through online retailers. Rachel is frequently sought out by the media and has appeared on the Today Show, CNBC, Business Insider, The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg. When she’s not working with clients, she’s scaring friends at parties with stories about the most problematic online products she’s found in their homes. She lives in Seattle, Washington.

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